Saturday, 18 May 2013

A Beginner’s Guide to the London Public Transport System

If you’re moving, just moved, thinking about moving to, or just visiting London then there is 99% probability that you are moving from a much smaller city, with a much less complicated public transport system!

Buses and a train every now and then (which I definitely wasn’t sure how to use), was the extent of my public transport knowledge before moving to London. Just the sheer size and scale was overwhelming, and I’d never used an underground system before. That being said I was also equally impressed with the way London actually manages to run it’s public transport on time and about ten times faster and more frequently then little old Brisbane.

Never fear, like all things, with time comes familiarity and soon you’ll be riding a double-decker and running the rabbits warren like you were born in the big smoke. But in the mean time, here are some explanations about different public transport and some tips to make it easy to get around!


The Underground/Tube

This is generally the quickest way to get around, and (depending where you live) will probably be your main source of public transport. It can be a little daunting at first with so many lines and I spent a lot of my first few weeks getting on the right tube line…but going in the wrong direction.

A few tips:

1.     If you have a smart phone (is there anyone who doesn’t?) Then get a tube map app! They are free, and can tell you the quickest route to and from your destination, the route with fewest changes, any delays on different lines or closures, a map of the entire tube system including the Overground lines as well as working without wifi! 
2.     Always avoid the tube in peak hour (generally from around 7am-9:30am, and 5:30am – 7pm) because people will LITERALLY trample you to get on. I have had a full-grown man shove me to the side so he could get on. If you are going to travel in peak, or have no choice as I do for work, then make sure you’ve got some guts about you to stand your ground.
3.     When riding the escalators you stand to the right and walk on the left. No expecptions, people will get annoyed at you if you don’t.
4.     It is hard to tell which direction your tube is going once you get on the actual carriage – though the little man that speaks to you will tell you at every stop so you’ll work out if you’re going the wrong way after one stop.
5.     Mostly only drunk people will talk to you, (I’ve had two drunk men ask me on dates while riding the tube) but other than that people stick to themselves, their headphones or their books. No eye contact or smiling is accepted.  


The Overground

Basically an above ground train – like any other you may have had in your home town. Though if your hometown was anything like mine, they definitely run more frequently and they run on time (a crazy concept for a Brisbanite like me). 

Compared to the underground the run significantly less frequently – about every 10-15 minutes – and take a bit longer.

The DLR (Docklands Light Railway)

This is a fairly new addition to the public transport system in London and reach from central London out East as far as Beckton. It’s frequent and relatively fast and is particularly useful for getting to the London City Airport.


Double-decker buses have been an enduring symbol of London and most tourists want to get their first ride on one – though they usually do it on one of the big red tour buses.
Buses take ALOT longer then any other mode of transport, but if you are only travelling short distances then they are worth the price difference alone. I like catching buses when I know I don’t have to rush anywhere. I actually get to see my surroundings and get to know the area a little bit better, it’s easy to forget there’s an outside world sometimes in the rabbit warren that is the tube system.

Night Buses

Night buses are amazing. I can’t stress this enough. If you are going to have nights out in London and have ahhh ehhh umm…. A ’few’ drinks…. then they are going to be your best friends. Black cabs and unmarked cabs (which are unsafe to get, though I must admit have caught a few home before) are ridiculously expensive. If they can tell you’re not a local they will charge you about double the price they would a Londoner! So the best way to get home in the early hours of the morning is a night bus. Be prepared for it to take a little longer …. But you never who you’ll meet at 3am in the dredges of East London to spice your journey up.

Note: Not to be confused with Harry Potters Knight Buses – have yet to see one of these.

General Tips

1.     Get yourself an oyster card – even if you’re only in town for a week or two. If you hand it back in you can get the five quid back that it costs to buy it, and the tickets you get on an oyster work out to be much cheaper than paper tickets.
2.     The transport system is divided into 6 zones – 1 being central London, 6 being the outskirts. Obviously the more zones you have to travel across the more expensive it becomes. Buses only cost a fixed amount per ride, no matter the distance.
3.     There are a high number of suicides in the underground.  As a new Londoner they still make me upset, but for Londoners they regard them as mere inconveniences of their day. They can be slightly callous about it. Perhaps this comes from their constant exposure and familiarity, and has thus become familiar and therefore no longer shocking. For us small-towners might find it a little bit more difficult to dismiss.

Good luck! 

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